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Yangtze River Cruise Adventure

Yangtze River Cruise Adventure

By Anthony Anderton.

It is one of the great river journeys of the world. For centuries travellers have marvelled at the scenic grandeur of the Yangtze gorges. Still, in over 30 years of living, working and travelling across China, and seeing pretty much every highlight on the tourist bucket list, somehow a journey on the Yangtze — China’s Mother River — had eluded me. Until this year, when on a steamy summer evening I stepped aboard the 216-passenger MV Selina to embark on my week-long Yangtze adventure, cruising downriver to the mighty Three Gorges Dam, and then back upriver to my starting point — the mega city of Chongqing.

Yangtze River Cruise Adventure

The Qutang Gorge. * Photo: Tony Anderton

Day 1:  Chongqing — The Journey Begins

Booming Chongqing is one of the biggest and most dynamic cities in China. It straddles the junction of two rivers — the Jialing and the mighty Yangtze. The city proper boasts a population of ten million plus (and growing) and it pulsates with energy 24 x 7. Most travellers embarking on a river cruise seem to skip Chongqing, but I recommend staying a day or two to soak up the pulsating energy of this riverside giant and sample its legendary fiery hotpot cuisine.

I boarded the MV Selina at the historic Chaotianmen dock — “towards the gate of heaven.” For centuries it has marked the start — or end — of every traveller’s Yangtze journey. But in mid 2018 the “gate of heaven” is a confusing maze of new construction; members of tour groups will be escorted though, but independent travellers might need some assistance to negotiate the chaos.

Yangtze River Cruise Adventure

The MV Selina. * Photo: Tony Anderton

As my passport and ticket were being checked for boarding, a small brass band struck up an exuberant welcome aboard. Comprised of musicians from the Selina’s crew it would be one of several entertaining performances staged for passengers by the very talented crew.

Yangtze River Cruise Adventure

The brass bugle welcome as we boarded in Chongqing. * Photo: Tony Anderton

After a quick inspection of my snug, blissfully air-conditioned cabin (in summer Chongqing is nicknamed “The Furnace of China”), taking in the view from the private cabin balcony, and a familiarisation walk around the ship, I joined the other passengers for the welcome buffet dinner.

Yangtze River Cruise Adventure

A Selina cabin. * Photo: Tony Anderton

After dinner I made my way topside for the dramatic night-time departure from Chongqing. This is when you need your camera or smart phone primed and ready for action. The night-time departure, taking in the futuristic neon-lit skyline of Chongqing, is something not to be missed. With the ship’s horn booming the Selina slipped into the surging current of the Yangtze — and the start of my adventure on what was once called “the river of 100 perils.”

Yangtze River Cruise Adventure

The night departure from Chongqing. * Photo: Tony Anderton

Day 2: The Downstream Journey

River Sunrise &  Fengdu, the City of Ghosts

The Yangtze flows with great force at Chongqing and can flood severely during the summer — but by the time the ship reaches Fengdu Ghost City the surging current has totally abated and the Yangtze is like a vast lake.

The first activity of the day was a shore excursion to visit the historic temple complex of Fengdu, or the City of Ghosts, an important landmark for followers of the Taoist (Daoist) faith. I decided to start the day morning much earlier, with a sunrise photo shoot from the top deck and the chance to take in the stirrings of life on the water. A variety of water craft were already nosing around. A small, local ferry approached from the opposite bank, bringing passengers from new town of Fengdu, one of the urban centres that have sprung up since the dam waters flooded the Yangtze. Dozens of small towns and villages were inundated when water levels rose by up to 70 meters and more than a million people had to be relocated. The old town of Fengdu lies deep beneath the coffee-coloured water.

After breakfast the excursion to the City of Ghosts assembled and was ready to go ashore at 8am sharp — life on a ship runs to a precise and exacting timetable.

(Note: The Fengdu excursion is an optional extra and may not be offered if numbers are too small or if the river conditions are unsuitable.)

Our small group was accompanied ashore by an experienced English-speaking local guide, a feature of all the side trips and excursions during the cruise. As you enter the main ticket hall be ready with your camera. We were greeted by a colourful, energetic troupe of dancers, acrobats and fire breathers. At the foot of the hill you can opt to climb the tree-shaded stairways, or take the chairlift; the latter offering some fine views of the countryside and river beyond. At the top of the hill a small temple complex is believed to be the home of the King of Hell, and contains the gateway to the underworld.

Yangtze River Cruise Adventure

The Ghost City of Fengdu. * Photo: Tony Anderton

After the excursion do not miss the morning talk (delivered in English and Chinese) by the ship’s river guide. I found this both entertaining and informative. Included was fascinating historic film footage, featuring grainy black and white clips of the gangs of trackers who once laboriously hauled ships upriver through the fearsome rapids, shoals and deadly whirlpools of the Yangtze.

In the afternoon the Selina docks at Shibaozhai and I opted to get ashore and visit the famous Red Pagoda, a 300-year-old structure made entirely from wood. On the walk to the pagoda there are dozens of enthusiastic vendors selling all manner of souvenirs. Look carefully and haggle hard (with a smile) and you might well snare a bargain to take home. I discovered the talented Mr. Yang who made colourful, intricate and vibrant action figures, dragons and creations of all kinds out of soft wire.

The climb up the interior of the wooden pagoda is very steep and strictly one way. Once you start the climb there is no way to turn back. But the views from the Pagoda and hilltop were more than compensation for the exertions involved.

Yangtze River Cruise A

Inside the City of Ghosts. * Photo: Tony Anderton

Day 3: The Downstream Journey

Entering the Three Gorges

The City of the White Emperor, or Baidicheng, is celebrated in Chinese literature, folk tales, and historic epics. Like a castle of the Rhine the town occupies a strategic vantage point with some fine views of the Qutang gorge. But this beautiful spot was once a place of harsh exile for those who fell from imperial favour.

Rising water levels have forced the residents to rebuild the old city gate higher up the bank. Although we went ashore in the morning I found the combination of summer heat, steep stairs and the self inflicted burden of heavy camera equipment quite challenging. Make sure you take on plenty of water and buy one of the inexpensive but effective handheld fans from a vendor.

Around midday the Selina approaches the first of the gorges — the Qutang Gorge. As we drew close a ripple of excitement swept through the passengers. It is a good idea to get out on the viewing deck early as the best vantage points are snapped up in a flash.

Yangtze River Cruise A

The reason for a Yangtze River cruise: The Three Gorges. * Photo: Tony Anderton

Although the shortest of the gorges, the narrowness of Qutang Gorge and the imposing height of the encroaching cliffs make it — arguably — the most impressive and picturesque of the Three Gorges.

Soon after leaving the Qutang Gorge we neared the entrance to the second defile — the equally dramatic Wu Gorge. Entering the mouth of the gorge the Selina passed the bustling new town of Wanshan and passed under one of the many impressive new bridges that now span the Yangtze. This bridge also marks the border between Sichuan and Hubei Provinces.

The rest of the day can be spent totally immersed in the grandeur of the mountain and river scenery. The forward and rear observation decks provide excellent vantage points for photography, but many passengers choose to return to their cabins, settling in to watch from their own cabin balconies.

Before entering the final and longest of the gorges — the Xiling — I joined another side excursion, which was a delightful small boat ride up the Goddess Stream, one of the many smaller waterways which join the Yangtze The scenery on this short cruise was stunning, with sheer mountain cliffs flanking the narrow stream.

Day 4: The Downstream Journey — The Final Day

The Three Gorges Dam and Ship Lift

During the night the Selina had exited the Xiling gorge and had berthed upstream from the massive Three Gorges Dam, the terminus point for the downstream cruise. After breakfast I joined a small group of departing passengers for the short boat ride to the base of the dam. Then we sailed into the gaping mouth of an extraordinary ship lift — the only one of its kind in the world. After a dramatic and eye popping descent, which takes almost one hour, our boat emerged into the sunshine and onto the river — 100 meters lower than where we entered the lift.

Yangtze River Cruise Adventure

The approach to the entrance of the ship lift. * Photo: Tony Anderton

Days 5, 6 & 7: The Upstream Journey & Return to Chongqing 
Yangtze River Cruise Adventure

Yangtze River cruises sail round-trip from Chongqing or one way between Chongqing and Yichang.

Many travellers opt to start their cruise in Yichang and then journey back upriver to Chongqing. The upstream journey takes a little longer and the ship reaches Chongqing in the early morning hours of the fourth day. The upstream voyage follows essentially the same itinerary as downstream, in reverse order. It includes a visit to the Three Gorges dam site, the ride in the ship lift, the spectacular passage through the Three Gorges and onshore excursions to the City of the White Emperor and the Red Pagoda. On this trip I was the only downstream passenger remaining on board for the return. As a photographer I enjoyed seeing everything a second time around, and a day of light rain and misty clouds on the mountains only heightened the dramatic appeal of the Wu Gorge.

Yangtze River Cruise Adventure

A bit of rain on the upstream voyage, here the Wu Gorge. * Photo: Tony Anderton

The upriver itinerary offers a couple of interesting variations on the downstream itinerary.

The first of these is billed as a visit to a traditional Tujia ethnic minority village. The bus ride is interesting, offering a chance to see the bustling new city that has sprung up around the dam area and also for some excellent riverside views of riverside scenery below the dam. Arriving at our destination it was apparent the village was built solely as a tourist attraction — in other words a theme park — so do not expect to see an authentic, traditional Tujia community. You will have plenty of other tour groups for company as well. Watch out for a glimpse of the old Yangtze —replica junks and a recreation of how trackers once hauled ships upriver. Although very touristy, the mountain scenery is pretty, and we caught sight of a group of a group of wild monkeys that still roam the steeply wooded hillsides.

The second variation offered on the upstream journey is an excursion on a smaller boat up the Shennong Stream. Again the river and mountain scenery is stunning, and it is possible to glimpse small villages and local fishing boats working the river. At various points the guide will point out the mysterious hanging coffins that are perched high up in the rocks. How they got there, who put them there — and why – largely remains a mystery.

  

Three Gorges excursion along the Goddess Stream. * Photo: Tony Anderton

Day 8: The Final Day of the Upstream Journey

Return to Chongqing

In the early hours of the morning the Selina tied up in Chongqing, marking the end of my Yangtze River adventure. After breakfast it was time to check out, say goodbye and step back on to dry land.

The Chongqing skyline. * Photo: Tony Anderton

 

Life on Board: Personal Highlights

The crew of the Selina were unfailingly friendly, efficient and helpful. Many spoke very good English and the excellent Cruise Director Marion and River Guide Tom were always on hand and available. My fellow travellers on the cruise were all part of larger tour groups; I did not encounter any other independent travellers. I had all my meals in the Yangtze Club dining room, which offered excellent buffet breakfast and lunch fare and evening selections from an a la carte menu. Soft drink, wine and beer were complimentary with the evening meals. The shore excursions were lively and interesting, but the tight timetable leaves little time for personal exploration.

Being able to speak Chinese offered me an extra avenue to engage with the many Chinese travellers on board and led to the most memorable personal encounter of my trip. I was approached to pose in a selfie with a group of animated and very excited Chinese travellers. When they discovered I could speak Chinese this became an open invitation for me, and in turn each one of the foreign guests on deck, to be introduced and invited to pose for a selfie with the whole tour group — all 37 of them. One of the Chinese travellers confided it was the first time she and her friend had ever met Westerners. She told me her companions were from a small city in the distant northeast Province of Liaoning. They had gone to primary school and high school together, and worked together in a large iron and steel complex. Now retired, and in their 60s and 70s, they remain close friends and regularly travel together around China.

During the cruise I was allowed on the bridge to meet the imposing Captain Yang, and watch as he and his crew expertly docked the Selina. Captain Yang has been sailing the Yangtze for almost 20 years and told me the changes he has seen on the river during that time are simply incredible.

Yangtze River Cruise Adventure

The author making new friends at the 3 Gorges Dam; a tour group from Xinjiang province in traditional attire.

➢➢➢ Click here for Tony’s “Yangtze River Cruise Tips” and to see more of his photos.

 

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The Anna on the Yangtze. * Photo: Victoria Cruises

The Anna on the Yangtze. * Photo: Victoria Cruises

Snapshot: Victoria Cruises is the only American-managed cruise line currently sailing China’s Yangtze River, the world’s third largest, and home to the hauntingly beautiful Three Gorges area. Victoria was established back in 1993, when traveling in China was a culture shock to many North Americans (and it often still is), offering a familiar setting with western cruise directors and English-speaking onboard river guides and tours guides, and crew to varying degrees. All but one of its 7-ship fleet of nearly identical looking riverboats, each with navy blue hulls and bright yellow detailing, carries less than 300 passengers (VICTORIA JENNA, the newest of the 7, carries nearly 400, and the trend is for ships to get larger due to the Three Gorges Damn which has raised water levels and made waterways wider). Three of the ships were built between 2004 and 2009, and the other four are from the mid 1990s, but they were all substantially rebuilt in 2011 or 2012 (and renamed in some cases) with a modern blend of European and Asian design. They are comfortable, but not super luxurious — “Five Star” to the Chinese market is not “Five Star” to North Americans. Each is fully air-conditioned and has Wi-Fi access. Often there are groups aboard combining a China land itinerary with a short Yangtze river cruise, some with well-known tour companies, Alumni and other special interest groups booked, as well as occasional Chinese conference groups. Individual bookings are also welcome from independent travelers. Note: Unlike some river vessels in China, Victoria Cruises’ fleet was built to international maritime regulation standards.

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers: VICTORIA GRACE (built 1996 & 198 passengers), VICTORIA LIANNA (b. 1995 & 218 p), VICTORIA SOPHIA (b. 1994 & 208 p), VICTORIA SELINA (b. 1994 & 218 p), VICTORIA KATARINA (b. 2004 & 264 p), VICTORIA ANNA (b. 2006 & 266 p), VICTORIA JENNA (b. 2009 & 378 p)

Passenger Profile: Mostly seniors fairly evenly split between North Americans, Europeans, Australians and Chinese, with Westerners tending to travel more in the spring and fall.

Passenger Decks: 5 VICTORIA ANNA, 4 VICTORIA JENNA, 4 VICTORIA KATARINA, 4 VICTORIA LIANNA, 4 VICTORIA SELINA and all have elevators between passenger cabin decks; 4 VICTORIA SOPHIA & 4 VICTORIA GRACE have no elevators

Price: $  Moderate

Included Features: Meals and accommodation. (Shore excursions are not included, but are fairly reasonable; some wholesalers package excursions into the price.)

Itineraries: The fleet does either 3- or 4-night trips downriver or upriver between Chongqing and Yichang; or 7 nighters to Yichang round-trip from Chongqing. The highlight on all the itineraries is the two-day passage through the Three Gorges, a trio of fjord-like submerged valleys flanked by dramatic walls of rock crowned with forests. The 5-mile Qutang Gorge is the shortest, narrowest and most dramatic and the third Xiling Gorge is the longest at 41 miles and the deepest with its cliff walls rising to 4,000 feet. Unfortunately, fog is common in the Gorges area.

Yangtze views. * Photo: Victoria Cruises

Yangtze views. * Photo: Victoria Cruises

Why Go? The reason to cruise the Yangtze is to sail through the dramatic sheer cliffs of the scenic Three Gorges — it takes about two days to pass through the area and a river guide narrates the passage. Another reason is to see the enormous Three Gorges hydroelectric dam, built in 2006 amid much controversy.

When to Go? Winter is cooler, less crowded and less expensive, while summer is warmer and humid, often very hot. Spring (March to mid-May) and fall (mid-September to November) is a good time to travel on Yangtze, and tends to attract the greatest number of Westerners and Europeans. Expect fog and smog some of the time. It’s best to avoid major public holidays — Chinese New Year, usually in February; National Day in October; and Labor Day in May.

Going though the Three Gorges on an excursion boat. * Photo: Aschwin Prein

Going though the Three Gorges on an excursion boat. * Photo: Aschwin Prein

Cabins: All cabins are outside and have balconies, and the vast majority are fairly roomy Superior Cabins measuring about 200 to 225 square feet, including the balconies (with the exception of VICTORIA GRACE’s 157-square-foot standard rooms). All cabins have bathrooms with a tub and shower, and TVs with CNN and HBO. There are a handful of suites on each ship, the largest measures 632 square feet including the balcony (ANNA, JENNA and KATARINA have the greatest number of suites). For the VIP treatment, book a suite or purchase the optional “Executive Deck Program” (for $1000+ per person) to get access to the private Executive Lounge for free happy hour wine and beer, and hot and cold drinks any time. The VIP plan also gets you free house wine and beer at dinner, reserved seating at evening shows, free Wi-Fi in certain areas of the ship, nightly turn down service, and private shore excursions for groups of 6 or more.

An executive suite aboard Jenna. * Photo: Victoria Cruises

An executive suite aboard Jenna. * Photo: Victoria Cruises

Public Rooms: Each vessel has two lounges, one lecture room, two or three bars, two restaurants, and a shiny two- or –three-story atrium lobby. You’ll find an Internet center, library, small gym, massage room, beauty salon and gift shop. There’s also a medical center. Décor-wise, various shades of gold are prevalent in upholstery, furniture and wall treatments, and so are wood tones, yellows, reds and blues.

Dining: Each Victoria ship has two restaurants: the single-seating Dynasty Dining Room serves buffet-style western and Chinese breakfast, lunch and dinner at large round tables with lazy Susans in the center for easy sharing, while a second restaurant on the top deck serves breakfast and lunch buffet style, and dinner from an a la carte menu at an extra charge (or complimentary for those in suites or who bought the “Executive Deck Program” upgrade). Chinese dishes include various stir-fries, rice dishes, soups and seafood, while western favorites such as grilled fish, pasta, beef stroganoff, salads, and typical American breakfasts are always on offer.

Entertainment with a cultural bent aboard the Jenna. * Photo: Victoria Cruises

Entertainment with a cultural bent aboard the Jenna. * Photo: Victoria Cruises

Activities & Entertainment: Because there is a lot of time on board as the ships pass through and between the Three Gorges (and most shore excursions aren’t more than 2-3 hours long), activities are plentiful, from lectures about the Three Gorges and the Three Gorges damn to various aspects of Chinese culture (Chinese medicine, poetry and art). There are also morning Tai Chi classes, Mandarin lessons, and calligraphy, painting and acupuncture demonstrations. Before and after dinner in each ship’s Yangtze Club show lounge, colorful cabaret shows feature traditional Chinese music and dance, plus an interesting fashion show that showcases elaborate traditional costumes from all across China and as far back to the Han Dynasty some 2,000 years ago.

Along the Same Lines: Viking River Cruises

Contact: Victoria Cruises, 136-18 39th Avenue, 12th Floor, Flushing, NY 11354;  www.victoriacruises.com, 1-800-348-8084

— HMS